EDITOR’S NOTE: U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean turned from promising to disappointing, all during his first year in office, according to Abraham F. Lowenthal, professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and president emeritus of the Pacific Council on International Policy. But the Obama administration can still reverse the tide by articulating a comprehensive framework of its relationships in the Americas, the founding director of the Inter-American Dialogue adds. A few excerpts:

As the self-confidence of Latin American and Caribbean nations has grown, support for Pan-American approaches to the region’s problems has waned. The Organization of American States has often been ineffectual, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which is intended to strengthen democratic institutions in OAS member countries, has produced few meaningful results. The influence of the Inter-American Development Bank has also weakened in recent years, as liquidity in private international capital markets has increased and both the Andean Development Corporation and Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development have gained importance.

Several countries—notably Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela—have been vigorously building ties beyond the Americas, with countries of the European Union, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and China, India, Iran, and Russia. Brazil has developed a strategic alliance with India and South Africa; strengthened its links with China and Russia; played a leading role in the g-20, the Doha Round of international trade negotiations, and the Copenhagen talks on climate change; and offered to act as an intermediary to manage conflicts in the Middle East and with Iran. As actors outside the Americas have become more important to Latin American and Caribbean countries, Washington’s influence has declined perceptibly.

In reframing U.S. policy toward the diverse mix of Latin American and Caribbean countries, the new administration proceeded in line with its broader resetting of U.S. foreign policy: it would be more open to engagement, even with adversaries; more disposed to multilateral cooperation; and more respectful of international law and international opinion. Once these changes became clear, the Obama team posited, the international economic crisis might make inter-American cooperation attractive again.

In devising this approach, the incoming administration drew in part on policy changes that had been introduced during the second term of the Bush administration by Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat who became assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in 2005. In contrast to his predecessors, political appointees who had pursued Cuba-centric policies redolent of the Cold War, Shannon fashioned a carefully nuanced, case-by-case approach to the various populist and potentially populist regimes of Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Shannon emphasized that social and economic inequities were the root cause of many of the problems in Latin America and the Caribbean.

This was in line with the prevailing view among many nongovernmental experts on the region. A series of think tank reports before and soon after the 2008 election had recommended more emphasis on poverty, inequality, citizen security, and energy; new approaches to narcotics and gun trafficking and immigration; increased cooperation with Brazil and Mexico; restrained, nonconfrontational, rope-a-dope responses to Chavez; and initiatives to move beyond the Cold War impasse with Cuba and to assist Haiti’s development—all ideas that contributed to the new administration’s thinking.

Instead of reverting to grand rhetoric, the Obama administration began working on a few concrete matters: bolstering financial institutions, restoring credit and investment flows, and meeting the challenges of energy security, the environment, and citizens’ safety. Rather than unfurl broad Pan-American initiatives, the new administration sought to bring together different clusters of states with comparable concerns to deal with specific issues.

In its first months, the Obama administration refocused U.S. policy in Latin America and the Caribbean from the “war on terror” to challenges more salient in the region, including economic growth, job creation, energy, migration, and democratic governance. It also began to shift from the so-called war on drugs, which had concentrated on eradicating crops and interdicting narcotics, to focus instead on countering drug-money flows, reducing the demand for drugs, and offering treatment to addicts. (Gil Kerlikowske, the former Seattle police chief, who is known for treating the drug problem as a public health issue, not a criminal one, became the U.S. drug czar in May 2009.)

The new administration eschewed hemisphere-wide approaches and identified four priority regions: Mexico and the United States’ closest neighbors in Central America and the Caribbean; Brazil, the region’s largest and most powerful country; the diverse and troubled nations of the Andean ridge; and Cuba, a neuralgic issue for the United States long overdue for a new approach. It seemed to recognize that the realities of the region called not for smaller but for more efficient governments that would concentrate on combating crime and violence, expanding education, and providing infrastructure and other needs that are not adequately provided by market forces alone. The Obama administration also understood that progress on key issues affecting U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean— immigration, narcotics, trade— would require efforts from the United States at least as much as efforts from states in the region. Washington began to acknowledge, for example, the role that the United States has played in fueling the drug trade and the associated traffic in small arms and bulk cash.

By the end of the Obama administration’s first year, however, the prevailing sentiment about its Latin America and Caribbean policy was turning to disappointment. Criticism came not only from the predictable sources—the Castro brothers in Cuba; Chavez; Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president; the Kirchners, the Argentine first family; Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan president—but also from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, and many experienced analysts in both Latin America and the Caribbean and the United States. The Wall Street Journal and several Republicans, particularly Senator James DeMint of South Carolina, rejected Obama’s entire approach. And think tanks on the left and some influential centrist observers who had been strongly sympathetic to his initial stance expressed disappointment as Obama seemed to back away from it.

In late 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to dash hopes that the United States would drop its hegemonic attitude when she warned Latin American and Caribbean governments that might be tempted to “flirt with Iran” to “take a look at what the consequences might be.” Even Latin Americans wary of Iran were rankled.

The Obama administration’s approach to trade policy was confusing at best. First, it rejected protectionism; then, it accepted a “Buy American” provision in the stimulus package. Having signaled a willingness to proceed with the free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, it postponed taking any concrete action. It talked up energy cooperation with Brazil but continued subsidizing U.S. corn-based ethanol and maintained high tariffs on ethanol imported from Brazil. Even as it was actively promoting an enhanced U.S. partnership with Mexico, it let lapse an experimental program that allowed Mexican truckers to enter the United States, thus placing the United States in noncompliance with an important NAFTA provision.

The Obama administration has faced serious difficulties in implementing its incipient policy for Latin America and the Caribbean. Its accomplishments to date should not be overlooked; nor should one discount the possibility that many of these constraints could be at least partially overcome if the administration were to clearly articulate and vigorously pursue the approach implicit in its initial steps. More concretely, the Obama administration’s tacit abandonment of regime change as the primary aim of U.S. policy toward Cuba may turn out to be much more important than its caution in moving toward normalizing relations with the Cuban government as long as Havana is unwilling or unable to reciprocate. Likewise, the Obama administration’s high profile commitment to working out a way to grant citizenship to millions of unauthorized immigrants in the United States could be of historic import. And its increasingly close day-to-day cooperation with Mexico on a wide variety of border, economic, social, health, and law enforcement issues may ultimately transform this crucial bilateral relationship.

The catastrophic earthquakes that struck Haiti and Chile early this year were dramatic reminders that policies must often respond to the unexpected. The Obama administration quickly demonstrated its solidarity with the victims of the disasters by emphasizing multilateral cooperation in its participation in relief eaorts. In Haiti, it worked with Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Venezuela, and others under the aegis of the United Nations to provide rapid, substantial, and effective aid. High-level meetings between top U.S. officials and their counterparts in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and Uruguay in the first few months of 2010 provided another chance for the Obama administration to refocus on Latin America and the Caribbean. Considering how many other problems, domestic and international, the administration was facing at that time, this spurt of attention suggests that it is still eager to improve U.S. relations with the region.

In order to grasp that opportunity effectively, the Obama administration needs first and foremost to articulate a broad framework and compelling goals for its relationships in the Americas. It was prudent not to announce at the outset of the new administration an overly ambitious program, like the Alliance for Progress, John F. Kennedy’s sweeping plan for economic cooperation in the Americas, and it was wise to attend the 2009 Summit of the Americas primarily in a listening mode. But this sensible restraint should not preclude the administration now from clearly setting forth why Latin America and the Caribbean matter to the United States; what interests, ideals, and concerns they all share; and how they can work together to pursue common aims. Elements of such a vision have been implicit in the Obama administration’s approach to discrete issues, but they need to be expressed in a comprehensive and authoritative way.

Latin America and the Caribbean matter to the United States today not for the traditional security and ideological concern of limiting the influence of outside powers in the region but rather for much more contemporary reasons. Massive, sustained migration and growing economic integration between the United States and its closest neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean have given rise to “intermestic” issues, complex issues that have both international and domestic facets: the narcotics trade, human and arms trafficking, immigrants’ remittances, youth gangs, and portable retirement pensions, among others. U.S. cooperation with Latin American and Caribbean nations is critical in confronting these issues, as well as transnational ones such as energy security, climate change, environmental protection, public health, and nuclear proliferation.

For all these reasons, the Obama administration should reinvest in its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. To do so, it should certainly help strengthen the Inter-American Development Bank, which has become more relevant in the wake of the international financial crisis and in these days of tight credit, and the OAS and other institutions that can take on select regional challenges on which there is broad consensus. But the administration should explicitly recognize that overarching Pan-American partnerships are less relevant today than cooperation with individual countries or clusters of countries on specific issues.

Re-published with permission by the Foreign Affairs magazine. Visit the original article.

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